Amy Babic
Owner
Kurant Wine Bar, 1091 Second Avenue
www.kurantnyc.com
La Cava, 939 Second Avenue
www.lacavanyc.com
Copinette, 891 First Avenue
www.copinettenyc.com

September 17, 2020
Photography by Ron Jautz, Jautz Photography

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East Midtown Partnership: Tell us about your business or place of work. When did you originally open or start and what was your vision?
Amy Babic: I am fortunate to have three businesses in East Midtown. La Cava (East 50th Street and Second Avenue) is a small wine bar opened in 2010, Kurant Wine Bar (East 57th Street and Second Avenue) opened in 2013, and Copinette (East 50th Street and First Avenue) in 2018 is a much larger restaurant. Our goal has always been to provide great quality wines, affordable tasty food, and service where the bartender probably knows your name and what you're drinking.

EMP: Give us an overview of what things have been like for you and your staff during the Covid-19 lockdown.
AB: Like most restaurants, we fully closed March 16th. We knew takeout would not even come close enough to sustain anything. We tried to stay optimistic as best we could. Holding on for one or two months is such a different mindset than what we know now to be six-plus months.

EMP: When did you reopen, and how did/does it feel to reopen your doors to the district?
AB: We reopened mid-May for takeout. It was a different world then. Not being able to serve people or not being allowed to catch up with people on the sidewalk. Getting used to wearing masks had its learning curve for both staff and customers. The weather started to get warmer and it was wonderful to see familiar faces but sadly many neighbors and customers have left town or are still out of town. As we get closer to fall it does feel like there is a return. I’m getting more messages, emails and calls that people are coming back so hopefully that is happening across the city. It will be different but as long as people are returning things will be moving in the right direction. We’ve always had a great happy hour, but without people going to an office when they can work virtually will happy hour ever be the same?

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EMP: After being shuttered for months, several more businesses are slowly starting to reopen in the district. What does that mean to you?
AB: When businesses reopen it truly brings life to the neighborhood. We have always loved that Second Avenue has always been a destination for dining. People don’t have to decide where they’re dining. They can walk by see who has an available table. If one is full they can dine at the next one. Each business brings more employees who are likely to grab coffee, lunch, dinner or go shopping before/after their shift. The more open businesses the better for everyone.

EMP: What’s one thing you’ve either learned, grown to appreciate or adjusted in your business practices moving forward as a result of the pandemic?
AB: To be a business owner in even good times you have to be flexible, keep making changes, stay positive, push yourself to the limit. But the past six months have really been a testament to that. We’ve survived the shutdown, curfews, riots, tropical storm Isaias among other storms that happen in the middle of dinner, rehired staff amidst an unusual time of unemployment, DOT inspections demanding we fix things within 24 hours, and the kicker - SLA inspections that have made our entire industry fear for their jobs. All you can do is take it one day at a time. If I start to worry about, oh, I don’t know, let’s say the winter when outdoor dining is no longer feasible, I will start to lose it. I was having a bad day and a friend who works in a restaurant that still hasn’t opened told me, “Amy, just keep going. That’s all you have to do.”

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EMP: What is your hope for the future of your industry in the city in the coming months?
AB: Obviously the pressure is on for indoor dining. NYC is the last remaining area in the tri-state with an indoor dining ban. It is extremely unfair to let the ban continue when the rest of the state is open and our new case numbers remain low. We are at the mercy of the weather, our employees’ shifts are at the mercy of the weather. Our rent, insurances, taxes do not stop. We received wonderful news that 25% [indoor capacity] will be allowed at the end of September. It’s a step in the right direction but 25% occupancy will not be enough to pay rent. Outdoor dining has been a great addition but so many restaurants, like two of mine, simply do not have the outdoor space to cover the loss of indoors.

EMP: Any other thoughts you want people to know as they venture out into the neighborhood?
AB: If you look around at who’s open, those are the businesses that are fighting tooth and nail, those are the working owners who make daily sacrifices to keep their doors open. Closing and walking away from our lives' work isn’t an option. We’ve been a part of so many happy memories for those who have dined with us. I’m proud to work in Midtown East among so many who have greatly contributed to our community.

 


Emma Bengtsson
Executive Chef
Aquavit, 65 East 55th Street
www.Aquavit.org

September 15, 2020
Photography by Ron Jautz, Jautz Photography

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East Midtown Partnership: Tell us about your business or place of work. When did you originally open or start and what was your vision?

Emma Bengtsson: Well, I wasn’t here when Aquavit opened 30 years ago but I did come on board in 2010 as the pastry chef. Since then I have transitioned to lead the kitchen as the Executive Chef.  Aquavit is a Scandinavian restaurant in New York where we focus on seasonality and Nordic flavors. Throughout the years my vision for Aquavit has changed. When I first came here, I thought I was only going to be here for one year because that was my visa status but I started making Aquavit my home and made the pastry department what I thought a Nordic restaurant should be. In 2014 when I took over as Executive Chef, the vision shifted to Aquavit overall. Regardless of my position, my vision has always been to do everything as best as I can and to move flavors in the restaurant forward.

EMP: Give us an overview of what things have been like for you and your staff during the Covid-19 lockdown.

EB: In the beginning of the shutdown everything was very surreal. Like many people, it’s the first time in my life that I have ever experienced anything like this. I never in my wildest dreams thought a city like New York would completely shut down. That took me off guard. The hardest part of the Covid lockdown has been the lack of guidance. There is no one to look to -- there’s lots of uncertainty and it’s hard to know if the restaurant will even be standing after this. It's all very stressful to me. When it comes to our staff, unemployment benefits only cover so much. Those who are working in this industry are true workers and give this business all we can. To go from working 80 hours a week to doing nothing takes a mental toll on people. It’s not just the financial part, it's also keeping yourself up and going. We tried to bring back as many people as we could, especially our staff who are on visa and were unable to claim any unemployment benefits.

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EMP: When did you reopen, and how did/does it feel to reopen your doors to the district?

EB: We reopened in May for takeout and delivery and it felt amazing to be back in the kitchen again and cooking for our regulars and fellow New Yorkers. But it also felt sad to not have the vibrant energy in the restaurant that so many of us feed off of. 

EMP: After being shuttered for months, several more businesses are slowly starting to reopen in the district. What does that mean to you?

EB: It's great that businesses are beginning to reopen. That brings more people in the neighborhood which hopefully means more business for us. People who are around and working need to eat and this gives me hope that the economy is coming back and that it's time for us to start living our lives again.

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EMP: What's one thing you've either learned, grown to appreciate or adjusted in your business practices moving forward as a result of the pandemic?

EB: I’ve learned to see the positive sides of being able to offer takeout and delivery. It's not something we have done at Aquavit before and I was able to learn how to cook for takeout and delivery and appreciate how well Scandinavian food can be adapted for this style of cooking. 

EMP: What is your hope for the future of your industry in the city in the coming months?

EB: My hope is that people will feel safe and that we in the restaurant community know how to handle indoor dining and that they are putting their faith and trust in us. There is a safe way of actually doing indoor dining. I hope people around the world are taking their own precautions and putting the responsibility on themselves to make sure this continues -- we don’t want to see this scale back or be halted because of noncompliance. 

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EMP: Any other thoughts you want people to know as they venture out into the neighborhood?

EB: I feel like sometimes Midtown and Midtown East may be underrepresented. There are so many neighborhoods in the city with high foot traffic but no one really talks about Midtown East. It’s so much more than just office buildings. There are beautiful restaurants and shops here. It's a vibrant neighborhood and for those shopping on Fifth Avenue, Aquavit is just a few steps away and perfect to take a break and have a nice meal or a drink.